Happy Birthday, Sister Leslie

My older sister’s birthday is in a couple of days so she’s been on my mind. This is a repost of the remarks I made at her funeral back in March, 2012.

Good afternoon. My name is Len Leatherwood and I am Leslie’s younger sister. On behalf of my entire family, I’d like to thank you for coming today to help us celebrate Leslie’s life. We are all here because we loved her. So, thank you.

Leslie. How do I best describe her?

First, my sister had a great sense of humor. With that in mind, let me say that according to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. So, given that statistic, I suspect Leslie is having a good laugh looking down and seeing me quaking in my boots right now. So, thanks, Sis.

All right, back to business. What is the best way to describe Leslie?

I could focus on my sister’s kindness, which was great. Anyone who knew Leslie is aware that she was a kind and gentle person. Or I could talk about her strength, which sent her into an overflowing storm drain to save our brother George from drowning when we were kids. Or, her perseverance, which propelled her to finish her Ph.D., while working full-time as a single mom with two kids. Then again, there is her athleticism, which caused her to be referred to as “the toughest boy on 13th Street” when we were growing up because she loved to play tackle football with the boys. And which kept her running, skiing, golfing earlier in her life and finally walking, walking, walking up until a few days before her untimely death. These are all parts of the Leslie I know and love. All parts, which make up a bigger picture, that’s harder to define.

My sister, even with her dementia, was sensitive. She knew how to read faces and emotions and could say, “Ah, you look a little sad today,” or “Oh, how beautiful you are.” Leslie had a gift of truly seeing you when you spoke to her. And as her dementia progressed and the filters came off, she also had a way of saying exactly what she thought. In the case of my husband and his voice, which gets louder and louder when he’s happy or excited, she’d turn to me and say, “Oh boy, here we go again!”

Leslie felt no need to be the center of attention. Instead, she liked to come into any room and blend in, settling back to observe and quietly participate in whatever was happening. She was comfortable with herself, and this quality made her very good at her work as a psychotherapist. One of the most poignant moments for me during those last days of Leslie’s life at St. Joseph’s Villa was when one of the nurses said, “Oh, yes, I know Leslie. I knew her before.” I didn’t understand until Kevin told me that because Leslie had been a psychologist working with the elderly, she had worked in all of the facilities where she would later come to live. The staff knew her “before,” when she was a fully functioning professional there to aid the residents. I found myself sad and happy at the same time knowing that information. These nurses knew my sister before dementia took her, and they all spoke of her deep compassion. How wonderful that they had a fuller picture of her.

Life has a way of shifting and changing in unexpected directions and Leslie’s life had several of these twists and turns. Who knew that a concussion from a bike accident was going to take such a toll? Who knew her scoliosis would twist her back and reduce her height by 4 inches? How could any of us have predicted that this woman who exercised every day of her life would be dead at 70, when so many other people suffering with dementia and Alzheimer’s live on for years? And yet, here we are, and she is free. Happy, I’m sure, since I said something about living to 100 a few years back and she said, “Oh Lord have mercy, I hope not.” She had not been free of pain in a while by that point. I expect she knew there would be more, not less as time passed.

So, what do I say about my sister? I can say without any doubt that she loved her children, grandchildren, and pets beyond measure. That she valued her family – in whatever configuration – above all else. That she was loyal, decent and kind, smart, well read, athletic and a risk-taker. She loved a good joke and she loved a big hug and she liked broccoli more than anyone else I’ve ever met. She also had a secret passion for sweets and loved to sneak them to my kids when they were little. Was she perfect? Far from it. Was she good? Absolutely. Will we miss her? Without a doubt. Is she happy now? I’d like to think so. And I can say that my life is better for her presence because of her enduring love, as well as the legacy that she has left in the form of her two fine children, Kevin and Jim, and her grandchildren, Eli and Sophie (and her beloved, Addie). I expect the rest of you feel the same way.

A minister told me once that death is healing and I can feel that here. Leslie is now whole and we are still healing as we hold her close in our hearts. Any time we hear someone happily whistling, I expect many of us will think of Leslie, who happened to be a whistler of the first order.

And since my sister loved a good laugh, it is only fitting that I include a few quips:

George Carlin liked to say, “I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I’m listening to it.”

Garrison Keillor said, “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”

And Bob Monkhouse is quoted as saying, “I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers.”

Hopefully, my bad jokes have made Leslie (and you) smile.

So because I know Leonard Cohen was one of Leslie’s favorite songwriters (as well as my own), I’d like to end with the chorus to his song, Anthem, which, lucky for you, I will not be singing. This is particularly fitting because the bells here at St. Mark’s Cathedral will ring 70 times in honor of Leslie’s life immediately following the service.

Ring the bells
The bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Thank you for joining us today, and thank you for loving my sister.

Leslie's Picture

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